When Are Police Allowed To Shoot?

If nothing else, Saturday’s shooting of Walter Scott by Michael Slager — and Slager’s rapid fall from grace — has offered fascinating insight into the mechanism of justice. Following the emergence of an incriminating video, which shows the white police officer shooting the apparently unarmed black man in the back, condemnation of the North Charleston killing has been swift and unforgiving. Slager was charged with murder Tuesday, and fired from the force Wednesday. (Slager could not be reached for comment.) The reaction has been vastly different from the way officials dealt with the similar death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. So, when are policeman permitted to shoot to kill?

Police officers are very seldom fired for using excessive force at work, but it’s even more unusual for an officer to be charged over a shooting. According to Vox, South Carolina police have shot at 209 suspects in the past five years. 79 of those suspects died — but only three officers were accused of misuse of force, and none were actually convicted. This, Vox says, is reflective of nation-wide trends. Police officers have a fairly large amount of legal wriggle-room when it comes to use of force, as a safety precaution for the officers and those under their protection. But a lack of eyewitnesses, and conflicts of interest in the ensuing investigation are also cited as reasons for the low conviction rate.

And yet, North Charleston police chief Eddie Driggers told a news conference Wednesday that he was “sickened” by Slager’s actions. So what makes Scott’s death different from the many other police shootings that fly under the radar? And when is shooting a suspect not justified?

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The fact that there is video evidence of Scott’s final minutes is a major factor in Slager’s charge. Witness Feidin Santana shot the video surreptitiously during the tussle, and quickly got the video to the Scott family, whose lawyers made it available to the authorities and the media. Scott’s father told NBC’s “Today” show that he believes the video is the only reason the case has received any attention. “It would have never come to light. They would have swept it under the rug, like they did with many others,” Walter Scott Sr. said.

Driggers comments on the event (quoted above) were in fact directly related to the footage. “I have watched the video,” he said, “and I was sickened by what I saw.” The video shows Slager firing eight shots at Scott, while the suspect runs away. Before the video had been seen, the incident had widely been seen as a struggle, in which Slager feared for his life. After it was released, Slager was charged with murder.

There was no video in the Ferguson case — no irrefutable evidence to back up some eyewitnesses reports that Brown had his hands up in surrender. In that case, it took the police six days to identify Darren Wilson as the police officer who shot Brown, according to CNN. The Ferguson police chief did not visit the Brown family.

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But even given the video evidence that proves Scott was shot while running away, Slager’s murder charge was not a foregone conclusion. The New York Times reports that it is occasionally permissible for a policeman to shoot a fleeing suspect in the back. In order to be justified, several conditions must be fulfilled. The officer must believe the suspect had already committed or was going to commit a dangerous and serious felony. Other pertinent factors could be: whether the suspect had threatened the officer with a firearm or other weapon, or if the officer believed the suspect to be a serious danger to the officer, other policemen, or the public.

Legal experts who watched the North Charleston video told the Times that these conditions did not seem to have been met. If that's the case, the shooting could not be legally justified. Stephen A. Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University, told the paper:

Whatever happened, this suspect was running away… That is, the suspect was trying to avoid the officer. It is highly doubtful that the officer could legitimately claim that he thought that the suspect posed a danger to the life or the serious health of anybody else in the community.
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A “serious” felony would not incorporate, say, shop-lifting, an expert told the Times. Or, one assumes, a broken taillight, which was what Scott was initially stopped for. The legal precedent at the center of the issues was established by Tennessee v. Garner, a 1985 Supreme Court ruling. In that case, Memphis police shot an unarmed suspect in the back, killing him, as he fled from the building he was suspected of burglarizing. The actions were found to be unreasonable, and a standard was set that officers shoot only if life is endangered.

This is where, perhaps, things get sticky in the Slager case. The officer has consistently claimed that he felt threatened, after Scott reportedly tussled with him and took his Taser. Police audio has revealed that Slager radioed in this claim (that Scott had “grabbed my Taser”) only six seconds after firing his final shot. On Monday, North Charleston’s Post and Courier quoted Slager’s then-lawyer as saying that the officer believed he had followed all policies and procedures before firing.

The video, however, does not appear to show Scott in possession of the Taser at any stage. Santana, the bystander and covert videographer, has instead said that he believes Scott was fleeing in fear of the officer’s stun gun. “I believe he just wanted to get away from the Taser,” Santana told NBC’s “Nightly News.”


Vox points out that police convictions can often rest on what the officer believed when using force, and not on the actual facts of the occasion. If he truly feels he is under threat — regardless of whether that threat is real — he may be justified in his use of force. The actual threat pales in importance besides the officer’s “objectively reasonable” belief that there is a threat to his life or the life of another.

So now, it is for the prosecution to convince a jury that Slager’s belief that he was in danger was not “objectively reasonable.” And that, one assumes, will partly rest on who was in possession of the Taser at the time the shots were fired.

The video will be key evidence, although the blurred footage makes it hard to tell exactly what is going on, Taser-wise. What the video does clearly evidence, is that once Scott was down, both Slager and another unidentified police officer did very little to assist him. Asked whether correct protocol was followed after the shooting, police chief Driggers was unequivocal. “Obviously not,” he said.

Images: New York Times/screenshot (1) ; Getty Images (5)